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Fannie, Freddie bailout to help mortgage consumers

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Fannie and Freddie guarantee the mortgage-backed securities that they issue, and those securities are deemed quite safe as investments. Not as safe as Treasury notes, but relatively safe. Fannie and Freddie are government-sponsored enterprises, or GSEs, and for decades they had implicit government backing. That backing is now explicit.

In the past few months, investors have rushed to the safety of Treasury notes and haven't been as eager to buy mortgage-backed securities. The lessened demand caused the prices of mortgage-backed securities to go down. When bond prices fall, bond yields rise, and that's what happened with mortgage-backed securities. As yields went up, so did mortgage rates. The difference, or spread, widened between Treasury yields and mortgage-backed securities.

Now that the Treasury will buy mortgage-backed securities, their prices should rise because of the greater demand. (The same thing would happen if the federal government bought, say, boxcar loads of sugar. You would expect sugar prices to go up.) When bond prices rise, yields drop -- so mortgage rates should follow.

Lockhart, whose department will run Fannie and Freddie, describes this succinctly when he says, "As the GSEs have grappled with their difficulties, we've seen mortgage rate spreads to Treasuries widen, making mortgages less affordable for homebuyers. While the GSEs are expected to moderately increase the size of their portfolios over the next 15 months through prudent mortgage purchases, complementary government efforts can aid mortgage affordability. (The) Treasury will begin this new program later this month, investing in new GSE MBS."

Jumbo rates stay up
The government's action will have a beneficial effect on some mortgages, but not all. It will have little or no impact on jumbo mortgages -- home loans for large amounts. (The definition of a jumbo loan varies, depending on house prices in each metro area. A jumbo is a loan of more than $417,000 in much of the country, and is higher in more expensive housing markets -- up to $729,750 in places such as Los Angeles.)

Because they are perceived as riskier, rates on jumbo mortgages have been unusually high for the last year. Historically, jumbo rates had hovered about a quarter of a percentage point above the rates for mortgages backed by Fannie and Freddie. Now they're about a full percentage point higher, and that gap is unlikely to fall soon.

The government's bailout of Fannie and Freddie won't affect rates on home equity loans or home equity lines of credit, either.

Bankrate.com's corrections policy -- Posted: Sept. 8, 2008
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